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FCC Approves White Space Devices: The Dawn of the Age of Opportunistic Spectrum Reuse

Sascha Meinrath

Yesterday will go down in history as a bellwether moment. Few among us will soon forget the excitement of Obama's election. But there was an equally historic vote yesterday that for geeks, policy analysts, and technologists represents an entirely new trajectory in telecommunications. In essence, the FCC has begun the transition from command-and-control, single-user spectrum licensure to a more distributed system that holds the potential to eliminate the artificial scarcity that prevented widespread access to the public airwaves since 1927.

Yesterday, the FCC ruled that unlicensed white space devices would be allowed to operate on unused television channels — allowing an entirely new generation of technological innovation to begin. While the official order has not been release, here's the information that's been gleaned thus far (please note that this is tentative information and until the official Report and Order is issued by the FCC, while unlikely, is subject to change):

  • Both fixed and personal portable devices will be allowed. So look for base stations on cell towers as well as next generation PDAs and multi-media devices.
  • Personal portable devices will be allowed to operate at power levels up to 40mW.
  • On non-adjacent channels (i.e., where you have three unoccupied TV channels in a row, this would be the middle channel), higher power levels will be allowed (up to 100mW).
  • Unlicensed wireless microphones will not receive priority status except, potentially, on channels 2-4. On all other channels (through to channel 51), all devices will share secondary status to primary broadcasters (e.g., television stations and licensed microphones).
  • A geolocational database will back up spectrum sensing capabilities to ensure WSDs do not operate in restricted areas. Left unclear is whether licensed wireless microphone users will be allowed to exempt their venue from WSD use and whether this would also allow for unlicensed wireless microphone users to do likewise.
  • A Notice of Inquiry will be launched by the FCC to investigate higher-powered use as an additional service in areas with few digital TV stations. This would facilitate backhaul capabilities for Wireless Internet Service Providers (WISPs) and other service providers.

I first started working on this proceeding back in 2004. After years of work, and an ever-increasing amount of time and energy spent on this battle, I can honestly say that I'm amazed by how successful this work has proven. At the same time, much like the presidential election, this win provides only the opportunity for amazing new innovations and services and much work remains. We need to work with performing arts groups to ensure that they have access to the technologies they need to carry out their work. And we need to work with wireless ISPs and allied organizations to ensure that they have the resources they need to continue spreading connectivity to underserved communities across the country. Finally, though the foundation has been set, the most important battle is yet to come — opening up all underutilized bands for opportunistic spectrum reuse.

I expect a multi-pronged approach to what lies ahead. I've already begun talks with WISP allies to follow up on the FCC's announced NOI. Likewise, I'm hopeful that folks I've been talking with for months within the performing arts community will see the FCC's decision as a good reason to collaborate on future joint efforts. In the interim, I am working with my colleague, Victor Pickard, on opening up debate on opportunistic spectrum reuse — starting with government spectrum. Our revamped working paper should be out in the near future, laying out a policy agenda for what needs to be done at the down of the age of opportunistic spectrum reuse.

Here's the FCC's press release as well as Commissioners' statements: Martin Statement; Copps Statement;Adelstein Statement; Tate Statement; McDowell Statement

By Sascha Meinrath, Director at X-Lab
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